As a major American writer, which he's widely considered to have been, E. B. White is curiously elusive of both damnation and praise. His writing was so gentle, graceful and sensible that a sustained immersion in it will make anyone who harbored doubts about him -- Was he really a great man? -- feel ashamed. On the other hand, it is very difficult to state the case for his greatness.
Even The New Yorker, whose voice he invented and which in its obituary put him in a class with Thoreau, somehow didn't make him sound like a towering figure. The obituary praised his "soft-spoken eloquence," his humor and his support of good causes, and, by way of final accolade, said he "got more of himself onto paper in a lifetime than most writers come close to doing." Somehow that fails to convey the importance his legions of admirers think he had.
White was not a misunderstood genius. From almost the moment he began writing for The New Yorker in 1925 -- that is, for 60 years -- he was widely acclaimed. As the author of "Notes and Comment," he must have been one of the few writers to become famous while writing anonymously, and as he began writing under his own name ("One Man's Meat," "Stuart Little," "Charlotte's Web" . . .) his fame only grew. He was loved by the public, by his fellow writers and by the Establishment, which showered him with Ivy League honorary degrees. Though a novelist only for children, a reporter who rarely did an interview and an intellectual who seems rarely to have read books, he struck a nerve.
The nerve that he struck was a widespread terror of the modern world. White was well known for being afraid and suspicious of automobiles, elevators, cameras and airplanes; in general, having been born in 1899, he moved steadily backward through the 20th century. He grew up in Westchester County, the son of a New York businessman, and was a young bohemian in Greenwich Village, but by the end of his life he was fixed in the public mind as a solidly rural figure who was most comfortable in and around the barnyard.
The evolution of his Down East persona is directly connected with his feelings of inadequacy as a writer in dealing with the horror and complexity of his time. He first moved to Maine in 1937 because he was disappointed by his inability to produce a magnum opus. In later years he hinted that he felt bad, too, for having ignored the Depression almost completely during his days as The New Yorker's editorialist. As World War II approached, he began to break his silence on public affairs, but in the '50s he resumed it on all but a few well-chosen issues -- McCarthyism, the environment, the independence of writers.
And yet, the farther he retreated, the more beloved he became. He had figured out a way to be simple and good and self-reliant in the age of bureaucracy and totalitarianism and nuclear weapons. Specifically, he was a guardian of the purity of the language at a time when it seemed that modern times would destroy it, or even destroy human dignity by destroying English first, as in "1984." It says something not only about White but about the country that this was (and is today, in successor forms) such an incredibly appealing stance.
Appealing doesn't mean right, though. White's brilliant success at inventing a style for dealing with the problems of modern life obscured his deeper urge simply to turn away from them.
The best case in point is the one cause he cared about most, so much that it moved him to write his only "serious" book. This was the United Nations and world government. In the immediate postwar period he was an important promoter of the idea, but then he dropped it. He could not be finally stirred out of his insistent, don't-bother-me-with-the-details simplicity -- his tendency to deal in quotidian detail or grand truth and nothing in between. His excuse was his well-advertised insecurity, which perhaps concealed a hint of snobbery about the pretentiousness and gracelessness of the experts who actually devoted their lives to debating the U.N.
Today there are two legacies of White's concern about "the need for government on a higher level," and it's hard to imagine that he watched either one with pleasure. One, lineally descended from his writing, is the nuclear freeze movement. White's letters show that while the "atomic bomb" repulsed him, he was dead-set against disarmament -- he believed that the Soviet Union is imperialistic, and that disarmament obscures the true way to peace, which is world government. But the freeze is stylistically a pure White position: it reacts to the terrors of the modern world by retreating to a simple, elegant moral stand, and one that, like opposition to air travel, doesn't have much staying power.
The other legacy is the current resurgence of anti-U.N. feeling, led by the neoconservatives. White could not have liked their tough, angry language about the evils of funding fancy digs in New York from which the Third World can beat up on us and our allies. But he, or his stance, ceded the issue to them by not staying vigilant about the complicated, specific ways in which the daily reality of Turtle Bay conflicted with the beauty and grandeur of the principle. It is very hard to change the world from a position above the fray.